During Black History Month twelve days into Donald Trump’s presidency, he inexplicably referred to Frederick Douglass as, “Someone who has done an amazing job that is being recognized by more and more people.” (Say what?) Obviously Trump thought Douglass was still alive which prompted famed New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz to write a spoof wherein Trump blamed Betsy Devoss, his controversial Secretary of Treasury. “’She’s the one who prepped me,’” he whined.
Joking aside, it’s always seemed like adding insult to injury that Black History was given February, the shortest month on the calendar. In reality, February was chosen because it covered the birthdays of Lincoln (12th) and Douglass (14th.) And it didn’t start out as a month.
It began as “Negro History Week,” founded by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Republican President Gerald Ford, in 1976, expanded the celebration into Black History Month to. “Honor the neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of our history.”
Because this is a “leap year,” Black History gets an extra day. And because of acclaimed historian Alison Rose Jefferson, PhD, this year Black History also benefits from her new book which was a decade-long in the research and writing. Her tome is likely of special interest to our city given a chapter entitled, “Race, Real Estate, and Remembrance in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park Neighborhood.”
The time period Jefferson focuses on was from 1900-1960, also known as the Jim Crow era. As Southern California was positioning itself at the center of the American Dream, African-Americans worked hard to be a part of that dream and make it an inclusive reality. By occupying recreational sites such as beaches and public parks for example, African-Americans challenged racial hierarchies and marked a space of black identity on the regional landscape and social space.
In Living the California Dream, Jefferson examines how African- Americans pioneered our “frontier of leisure” by creating communities and business projects in conjunction with their growing population. By presenting stories of African-American oceanfront and inland leisure destinations that flourished from 1910 to the 1960s, Jefferson illustrates how these places helped create leisure production, purposes, and societal encounters. But, contrary to California’s advertised reputation of racial harmony, these pursuits by African-Americans were met with considerable conflict.
In the early 1900’s, Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was owned by and operated for African-Americans. It gave that community opportunities unavailable at other beach areas because of discrimination. So it was, in 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a property in the strand area for $1,225.
The couple established a resort that included a bathhouse and dining house for blacks and named it for Mrs. Bruce. That a black-only beach resort would open up there was all the more notable because Manhattan Beach was an otherwise “lily-white community.”
But in the 1920’s the resort was attacked by the KKK. Soon racist white neighbors pressured the city until the property was seized using eminent domain to build a park. African-Americans were run off the property and their presence was virtually wiped clean from history for more than 80 years.
Finally, in 2007, the historical wrong was recognized when Manhattan Beach formally commemorated the property with a park name and plaque as “Bruce’s Beach.” (And here all along I had thought “Bruce” was a surfer dude.)
Santa Monica had its own share of racial “sins,” perhaps the most prominent taking place where Shutters is today. It was called “Ink Well,” a pejorative reference to the skin color of the beach goers. From 1905 until 1964, Ink Well was one of the few areas in California where African-Americans were allowed to enjoy beach access in a largely segregated society. In 2008, the city of Santa Monica erected a monument labeling Ink Well “A Place of Celebration and Pain.”
Thankfully, Santa Monica also had many who followed their better angels. In 1952, the Boys and Girls Club held their annual dance at Samohi featuring the year’s “King and Queen.” By tradition the pair were to kick off the festivities with the first dance. But the much-beloved football coach who seemed admirable in many respects, objected because the “King” (football star R.C. Owens, a future All-Pro with the 49ers) was black and the Queen was white.
Sensing this was flat wrong, Nathaniel Trives, a courageous African-American Student Body President, met with Samohi’s principal who quickly overruled the coach. Trives’ life would be filled with many “firsts including, in 1975, becoming the first African-American Mayor of Santa Monica.
Published by University of Nebraska Press, “Living the California Dream,” is available at Amazon and wherever books are sold. To find out more, visit Alison’s website at www.alisonrosejefferson.com.
Jack is at email@example.com.